Tibet - Giving something back

Tibetan people Tibet China by Vladimir Zhoga, Shutterstock
There are plenty of ways to help Tibetan people other than donating money © Vladimir Zhoga, Shutterstock

Giving something back

For many living in the Himalaya, life is far from paradise. How is your karma-meter? Gold, silver or bronze? Giving doesn’t have to mean money. It could mean lending your expertise in education, medical care, or assistance with computer operations. Scanning the following websites will give you ideas on voluntourism, including requests for doctors, nurses and physiotherapists, and teaching English to new arrivals from Tibet. Teaching can cover a much wider range: at monastic schools, students are keen to learn English, arithmetic, science, computer skills, gardening, leadership skills, accounting, health care and other subjects.

The gift of sight

Brian Harris

There are estimated to be 45 million blind people worldwide: 90% of these people live in non-affluent countries. Remarkably, 80% of this blindness is either preventable or curable.

In the Tibet Autonomous Region alone, there are probably over 30,000 blind people. In the Tibetan-populated regions of neighbouring provinces, there could be a further 30,000 blind people. That makes a total of perhaps 60,000 blind Tibetans. With cataract surgery, over half of these people could see again. The main cause of cataract blindness is simply the ageing process; however, in Tibet the incidence is believed to be increased due to poor nutrition and to a greater exposure to ultraviolet light. At 4,500m there is less atmosphere to filter out its harmful effects.

The Seva Foundation in the USA and its sister organisation Seva Canada are among the few NGOs working in Tibet to address the problem of reversible blindness. Seva has worked with the Tibet Development Fund, centred in Lhasa, for over seven years to help Tibetans develop eye-care services in each of the main hospitals in Tibet, by building a regional eye-care programme to reduce this immense backlog of cataract surgeries.

Although more than 40 doctors work in various eye clinics in Tibet, few have medical degrees and none are fully qualified ophthalmologists. Eye-care services in the region are very limited; the eye doctors are poorly trained, equipment is inadequate and outdated, and complication rates have been very high. Seva’s Tibetan Sight Programme attempts to address these urgent needs. Seva has developed training programmes for surgical teams from each of the 12 principal hospitals in Tibet, to teach staff safe cataract surgery techniques and other eyecare skills. Seva has also supported eye camps in Tibet, providing up to 500 cataract surgeries each to supplement the limited eye-care services available. Now, the Tibetan doctors Seva has trained are conducting their own eye camps each year.

When Seva first started working in Tibet a decade ago, one of its first major goals was to find and train local medical doctors in modern cataract surgery. Among the early trainees was a team of doctors from Menzikhang, the hospital of traditional Tibetan medicine in Lhasa. Actually, Seva did not plan to work within the traditional medical model, but the Menzikhang had the space to conduct eye camps and its traditional doctors were very keen to learn modern ophthalmology. Tibetan medicine is a complex system of medical practice, inseparable from its spiritual foundation in Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan medical tradition has historically included a form of surgical treatment for cataract. Thus, Seva was not challenging any major conceptual assumptions of Tibetan medicine. Several years later Seva also learned that Tibetan medicine includes the recognition of different eye diseases and several treatments for these conditions.

Now, after years of training and participating in many co-operative eye camps, there is an effective local cataract surgery team. But despite having excellent surgical techniques, these doctors don’t understand many of the basic tenets of Western medical ophthalmology. There are inherent dilemmas and very practical risks that arise when modern ophthalmology is incorporated into traditional medical practices without this new way of medical thinking to act as a bridge. Providing this theoretical bridge without undermining the very important traditional medical system is one of the many challenges Seva encounters in Tibet.

Another instructive example of the conundrums created by modern ophthalmology’s meeting with traditional belief is when an elderly Tibetan refuses to have this free, 15-minute, sight-restoring cataract surgery because their blindness is understood to be their karma or spiritual destiny. It is very important to respect such deeply held religious belief.

Seva continues to work with Menzikhang because it is clearly committed to serving the poorest people in Tibet and this hospital is the most trusted by the local people. In order to develop a comprehensive blindness prevention programme, Seva is still exploring the best way to add preventative care and medical treatments for other diseases to its existing programme of cataract surgery.

Seva does seek skilled volunteers for Tibet. Ophthalmologists, optometrists and ophthalmic assistants who can make a long-term commitment are especially welcome. Non-clinical volunteers including computer and health education specialists are also sought.

The rewards? Here’s what ophthalmic surgeon Dr Pratt-Johnson says of his volunteer work in Nepal, India and Bangladesh:

You soon get the feeling that you are doing so little and yet it means so incredibly much to our partners and particularly to the patients, who express their overwhelming gratitude in a mixture of gestures, tears and happy smiles. You try and wish you could do more. You return with an afterglow that warms your heart and soul. This psychologically resets the equilibrium of one’s life, fulfilment and joy. We ophthalmic surgeons need to be conscious of having skills that place us in a privileged position, coming close to performing miracles – restoring sight to the blind. Share it with as many as you can. Giving through volunteering is such an adventure and a lot of fun.

For more information about Seva’s work in Tibet and other parts of the world, see Seva Foundation in USA or Seva Canada.

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